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The Rays Before Satyajit (Creativity and Modernity in Colonial India)

Item Code: NAR989
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Author: Chandak Sengoopta
Language: English
Edition: 2016
ISBN: 9780199464753
Pages: 427
Other Details 8.50 X 5.50 inch
Weight 620 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

In the history of Indian cinema, the name of Satyajit Ray needs no introduction. However, what remains unvoiced is the contribution of his forebears and their tryst with Indian modernity. Be it in art, advertising, and printing technology or in nationalism, feminism, and cultural reform, the earlier Rays attempted to create forms of the modern that were uniquely Indian and cosmopolitan at the same time.

Some of the Rays, especially Upendrakishore and his son, Sukumar, are iconic figures in Bengal. But even Bengali historiography is almost exclusively concerned with the family’s contributions to children’s literature. However, as this study highlights, the family also played an important role in-engaging with new forms of cultural modernity. Apart from producing literary works of enduring significance, they engaged in diverse reformist endeavors.

The first comprehensive work in English on the pre-Satyajit generations, The Rays before Satyajit is more than a collective biography of an extraordinary family. It interweaves the Ray saga with the larger history of Indian modernity.


This book tells the story of a remarkable family of nineteenth-century India—the Rays of Calcutta—and uses it to illuminate the larger history of Indian modernity. Although some of the Rays, especially Upendrakishore Ray (1863-1915) and his son Sukumar (1887-1923), are iconic figures in their home province of Bengal, it is only Sukumar’s son, the filmmaker, writer, graphic artist, and composer Satyajit (1921-1992), who is well known beyond the Bengali- speaking world. The diverse endeavors of this family deserve, however, to be better known, not only for their intrinsic interest but also because they can illuminate the history of cultural modernity in India from unusual angles. From printing technology to religious reform, from children’s literature to nationalist politics, from painting to sound recording, from the education of women to the emancipation of indentured labourers, from book design to cricket, the Rays were at the leading edge of a whole range of key reforms, debates, and cultural adventures, a surprising number of which remain unaddressed in the ever-growing scholarly literature on Indian modernity. This book uses the Rays and their work to extend, complicate, and revise some of the contentions of that literature.

The little that is available in English on the history of the Ray family is to be found in the earlier sections of Satyajit Ray’s biographies, but these accounts are necessarily brief and do not seek to situate the earlier Rays in their own 1 historical contexts. Understandably, much more has been written in Bengali on them and their work but except for the inspirational research of Siddhartha Ghosh on the technological interests of Upendrakishore Ray and his brother-in-law, Hemendramohan Bose (from the empirical riches of which I have drawn extensively), Bengali historiography is almost exclusively concerned with the family’s contributions to children’s literature. The Rays, certainly, were pre-eminent in children’s literature, so much so that the poet, novelist, and critic Buddha-dev Bose commented in 1948 that they seemed to ‘hold a monopoly’ in that trade." But for all their literary eminence, the Rays were not merely a family of writers.

They were involved, individually or collectively, with virtually every reformist project of the nineteenth century and beyond. In her study of visual culture in Maharashtra, Kajri Jain has shown how Indian modernity involved the formation of unpredictable but productive links between such ostensibly separate spheres as art, business, and film.’ The story of the Ray family reveals many similar links. Technology and religion, in particular, were of great importance to the Rays, as were art, literature, nationalism, and social reform. The Rays, Ashis Nandy once remarked, had a predilection for ‘odd’, even ‘eccentric’, careers. Nandy offered only a psychological analysis of this pattern, but as we shall see, what it demands is comprehensive historiical exploration. When fully contextualized, the Rays’ seemingly ‘odd’ endeavors reveal the unruly, ad hoc, and inchoate nature of India’s experiments with the modern.

The Cast of Characters

The earliest known Rays established themselves in Bengal in eastern India during the Mughal period. Despite the ruling order being Muslim, they prospered, like many other Bengali Hindus, as scribes or legal professionals. After the establishment of British rule, one member of the family, Harikishore Ray, entered the new landed gentry brought into being by the land reforms of the East India Company and adopted Kamadaranjan Ray, the five-year-old son of a cousin from the scribal branch of the family. The boy was given the new and aristocratic-sounding name of Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri (1863-1915).

Shuttled between two different social identities from childhood, the artistically gifted Upendrakishore embraced neither in full. At odds with the mainstream Hindu faith of his adoptive as well as biological families and not keen on living as a rural landowner or a scribe, in 1879 he moved to Calcutta—then the capital of British India and the nearest thing to a world city in South Asia. Such a journey was only too common for aspirational young men of the colonial era but unlike most of them, Upendrakishore did not pursue a career in law, medicine, or the colonial bureaucracy. Although he graduated with a BA, he became an artisan and entrepreneur. Simultaneously, he converted to the Brahmo faith, a monotheistic variety of Hinduism that not only opposed idolatry and polytheism but also rejected the caste system, championed the education of women, propagated the virtues of reason and science, and sought to create a whole new ethos and politics that combined nationalism with a cosmopolitan and universalist outlook. Upendrakishore’s affiliation with this radical group was formalized when he married Bidhumukhi, the daughter of Dwarakanath Ganguli (1844-1898), a remarkable Brahmo crusader against traditional Hindu as well as modern colonial injustices.

Born into a conservative Brahmin family and milieu in a village near Dhaka (now the capital of Bangladesh), Dwarakanath Ganguli had received little formal education, but even when working as an itinerant schoolteacher in the villages of East Bengal, he had begun to publish a journal for and about women. Shocked by the consequences of polygamy—the highest-ranking Brahmins of the time (such as Dwarakanath himself) were encouraged to marry as many women as they could—he dedicated himself to fighting the custom through his journal. Predictably, Dwarakanath moved to Calcutta in 1870, converted to Brahmoism, and threw himself into diverse campaigns for reform. He and his radical associates were the moving spirits behind two pioneering boarding schools for girls, where Dwarakanath him- self did most of the teaching.

Girls’ schools had begun to emerge in mid-nineteenth-century Calcutta but even the best provided no more than elementary education, that too of the kind appropriate for future housewives.

Dwarakanath, however, wanted his students to go to university; one of them, Kadambini Basu (1861-1923), eventually became one of the first two women graduates of Calcutta University and, subsequently, one of the first women doctors in India. Just before commencing her medical studies, she married her mentor Dwarakanath Ganguli, who was nearly twenty years her senior and a widower with two children. Needless to say, traditionalists disapproved of the match—less predictably, many supposedly radical Brahmos were displeased too— but it turned out to be a happy and largely progressive match. Dwarakanath supported Kadambini in all her professional ambitions, including a voyage to England that involved leaving their young children with her mother.

Dwarakanath Gangulis reformism was not confined to the domestic sphere. Along with many of his Brahmo associates, he worked energetically to build up one of the earliest nationalist bodies in British India, the Indian Association. Founded in 1876, it predated the Indian National Congress by some ten years and, although it was heavily Bengali in its membership, it fought for political reforms which would have benefited all Indians. The Association, like all ‘moderate’ nationalist bodies of the time, wanted India to remain within the British Empire but was sharply critical of the day-to-day government of British India and one of its primary objectives was to ensure that India was ruled mostly by Indians themselves. Today, the Indian Association is often regarded as little more than a bourgeois talking shop but at the time, it was regarded by many as a radical, pro- peasant, and anti-elite organization. That image was exaggerated but not entirely fictitious. The Association’s support for land reforms and its campaign against the ill-treatment of indentured labourers in the tea plantations of Assam revealed the distinctiveness of its position. The latter campaign, in particular, is of the utmost importance for us, since it was led almost single-handedly by Dwarakanath Ganguli. In an era when nationalists were preoccupied with opening up the hallowed portals of the Indian Civil Service for Indians, Dwarakanath’s grass-roots activism was unusually radical. Even though it failed to achieve immediate results, its revelation of ‘slavery in British dominion’ embarrassed the Raj far more profoundly than any of the Indian Association’s more genteel ‘constitutional’ campaigns.

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